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5 of Korea's Hottest Beauty Trends and How to Try Them

Korea is pumping out products fast and furiously. Luckily there are tons of startups making it easier to snag Korea's must-have beauty innovations.

This is the first in a three-part series where we are deep-diving into Korean beauty products and trends.  

Ever since the great BB cream takeover of 2012, all eyes have been on Korea’s beauty scene.  BB cream, that multi-tasking skin care wonder offered by pretty much every cosmetic company in the U.S. now, is one of Korea’s most successful exports. (Well, besides Psy.) The hype for the country’s offerings has appeared to eclipse even Japan, which has long been known as the beauty innovator in Asia.

Korean beauty companies are prolific because Korean women are voracious beauty consumers.  At Marie Claire’s recent Global Beauty Forum in NYC, which included Marie Claire Korea’s beauty editor, much was made of the legendary Korean 17-step skin care ritual. (This number may be inflated.  Regardless, it’s definitely not a wash-and-go culture.) 

“We’re seeing so much innovation come out of Korea and with globalization it’s coming a lot faster,” Erin Flaherty, Marie Claire’s health and beauty director, said at the Global Forum event. The bottom line is that Korean women are savvy about skin care and American women want in. So how do we get it?

Up until now, one Korean cosmetics company, Amore Pacific, has been the major player in the U.S. market.  Amore Pacific is like the Estee Lauder of Asia—it owns multiple beauty brands including its eponymous brand, the luxury Sulwhasoo line, and the lower-priced Laneige range, which just launched exclusively in the U.S. at Target as part of that retailer’s beauty department overhaul

But thanks to a handful of entrepreneurs who saw the potential demand in America, it’s now much easier to get your hands on a number of Korean brands, which you previously had to buy through eBay, Amazon or international sites -- if you could get them at all.  Several new e-commerce sites have emerged, and each has a unique aesthetic. 

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Alicia Yoon and Cindy Kim, two friends who met in Korea, started Peach and Lily, an e-commerce site devoted to Korean and Japanese beauty products, last year. They travel to Korea multiple times per year to scope new products. “Our curation is very stringent. Our criteria is that, not only does it need to be extremely well-loved in Korea, but we make sure the quality and everything their philosophy is about is in line with ours,” Yoon says. “We also like to see really potent, differentiated ingredients or a unique formulation that is very natural, organic or gentle to use.” 

Yoon and Kim are currently helping the Korean government with a marketing initiative to introduce more brands to U.S. consumers. In September, the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) opened the awesomely-named pop-up shop, Korea Cosmetic Bliss, in New York City, which will run through the end of May. (It is definitely worth a trip. I’ve been there three times and have spent approximately a zillion dollars on products. For research, of course! Yes.) The KHIDI has opened up pop-ups in the past, but this is the longest-running one to date. A rep for the KHIDI told me that the store is hoping to launch e-commerce prior to the pop-up's closure.  While Peach and Lily is decidedly more high-end, Korea Cosmetic Bliss carries a range of brands, from mass to luxury, and presumably the eventual website will do the same.

Soko Glam,  which launched in December 2012, is a great site for entry-level Korean products -- it carries popular mass brands like Missha and Etude House (another Amore Pacific brand). “There’s a big disconnect between what Asian and American women use,” Soko Glam co-founder Charlotte Cho says. “We wanted to bridge that gap. Korean skin care is a big part of Korean culture. I aim to demystify it.” The site includes a regularly updated blog and clear descriptions of products.

If you’re looking for more clinical products, a site dedicated specifically to dermatologist-developed, “pharmaceutical” skin care called MD Skin Mall   launched last week. MD Skin Mall offers brands like Atopink for extremely dry skin, A.C. Care for acne, and Dermafirm for anti-aging. Its co-founder repeats a now-recurring message. “Korea is the new France when it comes to beauty and skin care,” says Megan Lee, who used to work at Missha in Korea.  “We had been getting a lot of questions about Korean cosmetics and I felt this was the right time for Korean brands to expand into the U.S. A lot of people are paying attention now.”

Now that I have your attention, what should you be buying from these sites? See below to check out five of Korea's biggest and emerging trends. (Note: click on the images to see the captions in full):

In part 2 of our Korean beauty extravaganza, we test and report back on many fantastic (and occasionally fantastical) products and brands, including where to buy them.  

(To purchase products shown in slideshow: Amore Pacific Cushion Compact, $60; Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, $23; Mizon All-in-One Snail Repair Cream, $38; The Face Shop Rice Water Cleansing Oil, $13; SU:M37 Miracle Finisher, $65.95)